Thirteen years. That's how long it has been. But Bengal is once again in the final of the Ranji Trophy. To say the least, for a region that prides itself on its cricketing fiesta, Bengal’s cricket has not always been the best.
Bengal's cricket has always flattered to deceive. Every once in a while Bengal used to produce a player who would turn heads and then fade into oblivion. Bengal would compete hard but would somehow end up losing. However, soon after, Sourav Ganguly took over as the President of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), things began to change.
In India, the focus has shifted largely to the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL) with players making big money by playing in this short format. Last year, Ranji Trophy players earned Rs. 35,000 on each match day. But with only a few places up for grabs and so many fighting it out - the life of a domestic cricketer is uncertain.
Recently, Sourav Ganguly, now President, Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI), announced that the prize money for IPL would be Rs. 10 crore - down from Rs. 20 crore. He also expressed his desire to provide better income to the first-class players. But it remains to be seen whether there is any connection between the two decisions.
Meanwhile, the Bengal team seems to have developed a knack of making comebacks this Ranji season. One player or other took charge whenever the going got tough. Speaking about the players in the team, Amalendu Biswas, Manager, Men’s Bengal Cricket Team, told BE, “Players like Shahbaz Ahmed and Arnab Nandi have performed well in the local league. Mukesh Kumar was once considered an ordinary bowler. But now, after consistent performances in the local leagues, he has become better. The CAB has stood beside their players in times of need.”
Shahbaz Ahmed as an all-rounder, batting down the order has been exceptional, scoring runs as well as picking wickets. But the one player who has stood out is Anustup Majumder. Time and again he proved his worth by walking out when wickets were falling around him and helped to rebuild the innings. With back to back hundreds in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, all eyes will certainly be on the lower middle order batsman in the final. Fast bowler Ishan Porel too has been playing consistently well over the last couple of years, even winning the U19 World Cup with India. These players are already grabbing a lot of attention and could script a glamourous future.
The change in Bengal cricket, however, did not come overnight. As soon as Sourav Ganguly took charge of the CAB, he set out to upgrade the Eden Gardens pitch. The once slow and low track now provides adequate bounce for the fast bowlers.
Speaking about the changes in the domestic structure, Biswas said, “The format has changed as well. Now there are 11 teams playing in the super division of the Ranji Trophy. We have three day matches now, grounds have become bigger and the Eden Gardens pitch has more grass on it.” Eden Gardens also has one of the best ground staffs as well as equipment to deal with weather conditions.
With Sourav Ganguly’s Vision 2020 programme, the Bengal players got to interact with some of the legends of the game like VVS Laxman and Muttiah Muralitharan. They were brought to Bengal’s camps to spend time
with the players and fine tune their game. Now, the results are there for everyone to see. Bengal reaching the Ranji Trophy final is a testament to that vision. The youngsters have benefited hugely from the experience and their quality of cricket has certainly improved.
Coach Arun Lal has had a big impact. According to Biswas, “This is Arun Lal’s team. The discipline in Bengal cricket is exemplary thanks to him. He follows one principle - you have to perform well to get a place in the side. In Bengal cricket we do not run after big names. We reward performances.”